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A smoother life for people who stutter

There is no cure, but a new therapy helps those afflicted to work with the disability rather than stamp it out.

May 12, 2003|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Ordering dinner may not sound like much of a triumph, but it is when you stutter like Kevin Murphy.

For most of his life, the 19-year-old college student had avoided public speaking and talking to strangers. The embarrassment caused by the few excruciating seconds of stammering over a syllable, word or phrase was simply too much to bear. Because of it, Murphy's parents always had ordered his meals when eating out.

But on this particular night a couple of years ago at a hometown restaurant, Murphy, still in high school at the time, surprised his father by ordering dinners for the two of them. He marks this moment, shortly after an intensive monthlong speech program, as a beginning.

"I told my dad I wanted to make up for all those times he had ordered for me," said Murphy, now a business student at Idaho State University.

Stuttering is a communication disorder, with speech disruptions that typically strike at the beginning of a word or sentence. The condition can range from mild (a syllable or word is occasionally repeated) to severe (a five-word sentence can take a minute or longer). About 1% of the population suffers from the condition in some form, with adult male stutterers outnumbering their female counterparts by a ratio of 4 to 1, according to the National Stuttering Assn.

The disorder is as old as spoken language, researchers say. Depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics and written about by Hippocrates, its long history has fueled many misconceptions, some of which still exist. Among the most damaging is that stuttering's roots are psychological and can be blamed upon stupidity, nervousness or a mental illness. Instead, researchers believe stuttering has multiple causes, probably involving brain chemistry, genetics and environmental factors.

Anxiety and tension can compound the problem, quickly creating a vicious cycle that destroys the ability to speak. Non-stutterers can unwittingly contribute to the dynamic by either finishing sentences or offering up unsolicited advice like: "Relax" or "Slow down."

"There's no cure," said J. Scott Yaruss, a National Stuttering Assn. board member and co-director of the Stuttering Center of Western Pennsylvania. "But every person who stutters can learn to speak more effectively, more smoothly and with less effort. There really should be nothing a stutterer can't do."

Murphy was about 3 years old when his parents noticed his talking troubles or, as researchers call them, speech "dysfluencies." But as is frequently the case, pediatricians weren't overly concerned. After all, an estimated 5% of children experience some developmental stuttering between the ages of 2 and 6. In more than three-quarters of these cases, the children outgrow it.

"It's totally normal for a child to go through a period where they stutter," said Yaruss, an associate professor of communication science and disorders at the University of Pittsburgh. But, he added, if parents are worried or, more important, the child seems to be, an appointment with a speech therapist is recommended.

If a child enters a speech therapy program before the age of 7, the condition can often be eliminated, Yaruss said.

"Families are often told to wait and see if their child's stutter goes away," he said. "But this is too big a risk for the child, because if we wait too long, the opportunity for a complete full recovery can be lost."

Murphy, however, saw about a dozen doctors and speech therapists over more than a decade. Often the therapies included avoiding certain words or sounds that might trigger stuttering or altering the speed of their speech. Like many stutterers, Murphy found these strategies usually worked only temporarily. And, despite all his treatments, he was still considered a severe stutterer, leading him to shy away from speaking in class and to avoid friendships with non-stutterers.

"When you're going to school -- whether it's elementary or high school -- you never want to be the different one in the crowd," said Murphy. "I never really had a problem with teasing, but it was still pretty tough at times."

Drug therapies were and still are available, but Murphy opted against them. The drugs have been shown to improve the condition in only about half the cases. Also, the powerful medications, similar to the ones used to treat schizophrenia and depression, can have serious side effects.

Three years ago, Murphy joined the National Stuttering Assn., and a couple of speech pathologists in the group suggested he try a new intensive speech therapy program at Eastern Washington University in Cheney. Unlike many traditional programs that emphasize conquering the condition or modifying speech to become more socially acceptable, this one urged stutterers to embrace and accept their condition.

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